'An existential threat': Bernie Sanders faces mounting opposition from moderate Democrats

Lauren Gambino in Charleston
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Moderate Democrats have stepped up their opposition to Bernie Sanders as part of a concerted effort to isolate him from the sprawling field of otherwise “mainstream” and “electable” candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination.

Last week, Sanders delivered a searing defense of democratic socialism, setting himself apart from the rest of the Democratic party, whose opposition he not only anticipated but welcomed.

At a gathering of nearly 250 political moderates convened by the centrist thinktank Third Way in South Carolina this week, some of the party’s most prominent center-left voices took the bait.

“I believe a gay midwestern mayor can beat [Donald] Trump. I believe an African American senator can beat Trump. I believe a western governor, a female senator, a member of Congress, a Latino Texan or a former vice-president can beat Trump,” said Jon Cowan, president of Third Way, hours before Donald Trump formally launched his re-election campaign with a rally in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday.

“But I don’t believe a self-described democratic socialist can win.”

I don’t believe a self-described democratic socialist can win

Jon Cowan

In speeches and on panels over the course of two sticky days in Charleston, moderate lawmakers, strategists and donors inveighed against the Vermont senator’s populist economic vision. The approach elevated a conversation that has largely taken place behind closed doors about how to thwart Sanders, who moderates believe would alienate crucial voting blocs in a general election.

“He has made it his mission to either get the nomination or to remake the party in his image as a democratic socialist,” Cowan told the Guardian. “That is an existential threat to the future of the Democratic party for the next generation.”

Sanders – who maintains his political identity as an independent– has made it clear he intends to run against the Democratic establishment as he seeks the party’s nomination. Third Way’s public criticism of the senator, days before the first presidential primary debates next week, reflects sharp new dividing lines in the battle for control of the party.

‘Anybody but Bernie’

“The cat is out of the bag,” Sanders tweeted on Wednesday, sharing a Politico story about how Third Way’s leaders are warming to his closest ideological rival, Elizabeth Warren. “The corporate wing of the Democratic party is publicly ‘anybody but Bernie’.”

In a statement, his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, attacked Third Way and said the moderate faction had “declared war on Senator Sanders”.

Sanders and his allies argue that the Democratic party’s turn toward corporatism led to Trump’s rise and that the theory of political electability advanced by Third Way and other centrists is no match for the mood of the electorate in a populist moment. At a party event in California earlier this month, the Democratic hopeful John Hickenlooper was booed by the audience for saying socialism is “not the answer”.

After more than two years of watching liberals rise, moderates again feel ascendant. Emboldened by the results of the 2018 midterm elections, which saw pragmatic Democrats win in dozens of Republican-held districts to deliver a majority in the House of Representatives, they are increasingly vocal in their disdain for socialism – and Sanders.

But the question of how to constrain Sanders is complicated. In 2016, Trump defeated a wide field of more experienced and more qualified candidates with a populist message that appealed to the right’s anti-establishment anger. In a race with a similarly large field of candidates, Sanders enters with far more advantages than Trump did: the Vermont senator is both experienced and qualified, with a dedicated following, a prodigious small-dollar fundraising operation, a developed economic platform and a populist appeal that surges when he is attacked by the political establishment he ran against to great effect in 2016.

Trump and Republicans continue to hurl the socialism label at the Democrat field. On Tuesday night, Trump warned in a speech formally launching his re-election campaign: “A vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.”

Democratic hopeful John Hickenlooper was booed by the audience for saying socialism is ‘not the answer’. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

None of Sanders’s 23 competitors have embraced a socialist platform. Warren, who is nipping at his heels in some recent polls, distinguishes herself as a capitalist.

Attitudes toward socialism are shifting in the US. Recent surveys have found that young people and women associate socialism with European countries rather than Soviet Russia. Yet socialism remains broadly unpopular: less than half of American voters say they would vote for a “qualified presidential candidate who is a socialist”, according to a Gallup poll released in May.

‘Who’s better on the economy?’

The mood at the conference vacillated from nervous optimism to nervous pessimism about Democrats’ prospects for beating Trump in 2020.

“If we don’t nominate a self-proclaimed socialist, we’ll probably be OK,” said Jen Psaki, who was White House communications director under Obama. “I hope so.”

But the former North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp, who lost re-election in 2018, warned that Democrats would continue to lose the White House and the US Senate unless the party makes inroads with rural voters.

If we don’t nominate a self-proclaimed socialist, we’ll probably be OK

Jen Psaki

“We have stopped talking to the middle of the country,” said Heitkamp, who launched One Country Project that seeks to “re-engage rural America”. “People feel like we’ve abandoned the bread-and-butter issues, and people in rural America feel it more accutely.”

Emphasizing her point, she said that if farmers from her state were asked to name the three biggest problems in rural America, “not one would say: antitrust”.

During the final panel of the day, Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, predicted the 2020 election will be extremely close.

“We could be sitting on election day not knowing who will win,” he said.

‘Get off Twitter’

Several speakers urged those in the room to “get off Twitter” and venture into the real world, where far fewer Democrats are engaged in “faculty lounge debates over political ideology”.

“There is a potential that the hyper-hyper-engaged – the extremely online voters that are paying attention right now – might be able to drive the direction of the campaigns,” said Lanae Erickson, a senior vice-president at Third Way.

She presented a poll conducted by the thinktank that found only one in 10 Democratic primary voters tweet regularly. When compared with the wider Democratic electorate, this cohort of “extremely online” Democrats are far less likely to identify as moderate, are more likely to have participated in a protest and support progressives policies such as Medicare for All.

Moderates’ theory on how to win in 2020, as described by one panelist during the conference, is to appeal to the “woke and the still waking”. The best candidate, they argue, is someone who can mobilize a Democratic base that is increasingly young, diverse and liberal, while still appealing to independents, moderate Republicans and working-class voters who could decide the election.

This is not achieved with “warmed-over 1990s centrism”, said Cowan, but neither is it achieved by “1960s Nordic-style socialism”.

People feel like we’ve abandoned the bread-and-butter issues, and people in rural America feel it more accurately

Heidi Heitkamp

“Voters do not want mushy, bland, empty Democratic centrism,” Cowan said. “But that’s not who this rising generation of swing district winners are.”

On Monday evening, one of those new House members, the South Carolina congressman Joe Cunningham, welcomed the group to his district, which the 37-year-old flipped last year after decades of Republican control.

In a booming voice that ricocheted across the galleria, Cunningham said he did not win his race by promising Medicare for All or by demonizing Republicans. Rather, he said he won by positioning himself as a moderate who was willing to work across the aisle and occasionally buck his own party.

Like a football coach rallying his team before a game, Cunningham said Republicans who run to the right to embrace Trump are “ceding more and more middle ground”.

“There is so much middle ground to gain in 2020,” he shouted. “I say we take it!”